For Release: Dec. 14, 1998
Michael P. Finneran
Release No. 98-095
LAUNCHING JAN. 3
Langley Aeroshell Design Aids Search for Water on Mars
Engineers at Langley had plenty to do with an essential
component of NASA's next Mars mission.
NASA's Mars Polar Lander '98 spacecraft is scheduled to launch
from Cape Canaveral Air Station at 3:21 p.m. EST on Jan. 3, 1999.
Mars Microprobes that could uncover clues about life on
the Red Planet will be "hitchhikers" during its 11-month
Langley researchers worked closely with their counterparts at
the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., to design and
test the aeroshell that will shield the microprobes during their
entry and descent into Mars' atmosphere. The aeroshell will protect
the microprobes from the remarkable stresses encountered during
their 14,000-mile-per-hour atmospheric entry and enable them to
align themselves properly to the surface for impact.
The basketball-sized microprobes weigh about eight pounds each.
They will detach from the Lander, free-fall through Mars'
atmosphere, and crash land at more than 400 miles per hour without
the aid of parachutes, rockets, or airbags. As the microprobes slam
into Mars, experiencing forces up to 80,000 times Earth's gravity,
the aeroshell will shatter. The impact's force will bury the
microprobes one to six feet below the surface, making them NASA's
first planetary penetrators.
The embedded microprobes will use a tiny drill to take
subsurface samples of Martian soil. These samples will be heated,
and a laser will be aimed through the gases that boil off to look
for signs of water vapor. The microprobes will relay their findings
back to Earth via the Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft, which
already is orbiting Mars. The results of this experiment could hold
the key to answering questions about past or present life on
The leaders of the Langley teams that designed and tested the
aeroshell, Dr. Robert D. Braun and Dr. Robert A. Mitcheltree, are
available for interviews. Due to the season and the launch
schedule, televised interviews can be arranged between Dec. 14 - 22
and Dec. 29 - 31. B-roll with interview clips is available. Drs.
Braun and Mitcheltree will be available for telephone interviews
Dec. 23 and 28 and Jan. 2 - 4.
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text-only version of this release